Venezuela's Hugo Chavez allegedly helped Colombian, Spanish militants forge ties
MACHIQUES, VENEZUELA -- For two years, Colombian officials have accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of providing arms and sanctuary to Marxist rebels intent on toppling Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, Washington's closest ally in a turbulent region.
Now, based on documents and witness testimony, Chávez is facing fresh accusations that his government has gone well beyond assisting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Documents seized from two subversive groups, along with information provided by former Colombian guerrillas, suggest that Venezuela facilitated training sessions here between the FARC and ETA, a separatist group in Spain that uses assassinations and bombings in its effort to win independence for the northern Basque region.
The evidence led Judge Eloy Velasco of the National Court in Madrid to level charges of terrorism and conspiracy to commit murder in March against a Chávez government official, Arturo Cubillas, and a dozen members of the FARC and ETA. Spanish authorities want Venezuela to extradite those accused, but so far the Chávez government has not responded to Velasco's international warrant.
The latest revelations, largely based on information collected by Spanish investigators in Colombia, Venezuela and France, prompted Arturo Valenzuela, the State Department's assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, to declare in a congressional hearing in March that the Obama administration is "extremely concerned" by the allegations.
With Chávez hamstrung by harsh economic conditions, some in the U.S. Congress worry that the Venezuelan president could increasingly radicalize and forge closer links with subversive organizations or nations such as Iran, Sudan and Belarus.
"As he gets more bogged down domestically by the natural consequences of capricious rule, we are likely to see more troubling relationships," Carl Meacham, senior aide to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said by phone from Washington.
The new spotlight on Venezuela's alleged links to subversives has been so uncomfortable to Chávez that he has warned that Spain's multibillion-dollar investments here could suffer. Critics in Venezuela have also been intimidated for speaking out about the FARC or ETA.
When Oswaldo Álvarez Paz, an opposition figure here, publicly expressed support for Velasco's investigation in a television interview, he was arrested and charged with spreading false information.
"This government does not endorse nor support any terrorist group," Chávez said in March soon after Velasco's indictment. "We have nothing to explain to anyone."
Chávez critics have long asserted that his government could be aiding groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. But this is the first time judicial authorities outside Colombia have leveled accusations that link Venezuela's government with terrorist groups.
"There is nothing like this in the world, showing support for organizations that are declared terrorist groups," said Gustavo de Arístegui, a Spanish commentator and author of the book "Against the West," which details the anti-Western stand of Chávez and his allies, including Cuba's Fidel Castro and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Colombian authorities who have sifted through documents seized from three rebel commanders in 2008 and 2009 said they discovered that ETA operatives met with FARC guerrillas in rural camps from 2003 to 2008. Those camps were located outside Machiques, this cattle-raising town in Venezuela's northwestern Zulia state, as well as farther south in sparsely populated Apure state, according to Colombian government documents.